Keita replaced David Villa late in the Champions League final triumph over Manchester United at Wembley Stadium last Saturday and has been a regular squad member through the last Spanish and international seasons. But Mali coach Alain Giresse has not chosen the midfielder since he took a break from national team duty after his country made a disappointingly early exit from the 2010 Nations Cup in Angola.
Keita scored twice in the opening match of the biennial African football showpiece as Mali staged the greatest comeback in the 53 years of the Cup to hold Angola 4-4 after trailing by four goals 12 minutes from full-time. However, a solitary-goal loss to Algeria proved critical and victory over Malawi could not undo the damage with Mali having to settle for third place and an early flight back to Bamako.
Keita opted to quit the international scene temporarily and missed an away loss to Cape Verde Islands and a home victory over Liberia as Mali made a modest start to their Group A campaign. He made himself available for a home fixture against Zimbabwe last March, but was not included in the squad for a match won 1-0 by the Malians to get their challenge for group glory on track.
Giresse, who played beside Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Luis Fernandez in the star-studded France midfield of the 1980s, justified his decision by saying the return of Keita would disturb the harmony of the squad. Keita is a cousin of Salif Keita, winner of the first African Footballer of the Year poll in 1970, and ranks among the finest footballers produced by the west African country.
With Sevilla striker Frederic Kanoute retired, Juventus midfielder Momo Sissoko injured and Keita out of favour, Monaco midfielder Mahamadou Diarra is the only one of the "fabulous four" in line to face Zimbabwe. Mali were hit by the late injury-induced withdrawals of a France-based quartet - defenders Adama Coulibaly and Drissa Diakite, midfielder Sambou Yatabare and striker Mustapha Yatabare - ahead of the Harare showdown.
Zimbabwe should pose a stronger threat than in Bamako as they have recalled veteran midfielder Esrom Nyandoro, and star striker Knowledge Musona is back after being ruled out of the first meeting by injury. Musona from Johannesburg club Kaizer Chiefs finished leading scorer with 15 goals in the just-completed South African Premiership while Nyandoro is a long-serving stalwart of Pretoria-based Mamelodi Sundowns.
Nyandoro and Musona are among nine South Africa-based stars called up by coach Norman Mapeza for a game Zimbabwe must win to have any hope of making the 2012 finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Cape Verde have seven points, Mali six, Zimbabwe two and Liberia one at the halfway stage of the six-round qualifying competition and only group winners are guaranteed a place at the 16-nation finals.